Business Ethics in Japan : Taking a Closer Look at the Role of Age

By Yamamura, Jeanne H.; Stedham, Yvonne | Journal of International Business Research, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Business Ethics in Japan : Taking a Closer Look at the Role of Age

Yamamura, Jeanne H., Stedham, Yvonne, Journal of International Business Research


This study focused on the relationship between age and business ethics in Japan. We examined ethical judgments made by Japanese men and women in business situations using justice, utilitarian, and egoism criteria while controlling for gender and gender-age interaction effects. Since individuals' ethical judgment depends on the stage of their moral development and the stage of moral development is related to age, we expected that relationships between the ethical perspectives and age existed. Our results support such relationships.


The global population is aging rapidly, faster than at any time in the past. By 2050, in developed countries, those over 60 are expected to outnumber people under 15 by a ratio of two to one (Fishman, 2010). This changing age mix in the world's population is expected to profoundly impact how business is conducted everywhere.

Japan leads the way in the "graying" of the world. Japan's total population in 2009 was 127.51 million, a decrease of 180,000 from 2008 and a continuation of the decline since its peak in 2004. Current projections reduce Japan's shrinking population to 95 million by 2050. In 2009, citizens aged 65 years and over comprised 22.7% of the total population. By 2050, the percentage is estimated to reach 39.6% (Statistics Bureau Japan, 2010).

Generally, negative prognoses have accompanied this news ranging from the harmful effects of the Japanese "gray menace" on innovation, investment, international security, and business cycle volatility to the possible extinction of advanced, post-industrial societies (e.g. Bainbridge, 2009; Glosserman & Tsunoda, 2009; Inoguchi, 2009; Jaimovich & Siu, 2009). But is the aging of Japan's population only bad news?

From an ethical point of view, age has long been considered a key factor in moral judgment. Supported by Kohlberg' s (1984) six-stage theory of moral reasoning, individuals progress through developmental stages over the course of their lifetimes, achieving the most advanced levels with age. In general, it has been found that ethical behavior increases with age (e.g., Borkowski & Ugras, 1998; Conroy et al, 2009; Peterson et al., 2001). Although much of this research has been conducted with North American samples, similar results have been obtained for other countries (e.g., Chan et al., 2002; Sudani et al., 2009; Wimalasiri, 2001). However, while exploring the relationship between age and ethical judgment, these studies provide rather limited insights into the underlying rationale for such a relationship.

This study focuses on the relationship between age and ethical judgment in business situations in Japan and in contrast to existing studies, several ethical perspectives (justice, egoism, and utilitarianism) will be employed to explore the relationship between age and ethical judgment. We relate the ethical perspectives to Kohlberg' s model ofmoral development which allows us to offer conceptual ideas for the existence of a relationship between age and ethical judgment.


Age and Ethical Judgment

Age has long been recognized as a critical factor in the ethics literature with research results generally supporting its inclusion. Overall, the results imply that older individuals are more ethical. Several studies show that increased age is linked to more conservative and strict ethical judgments and more inflexible opinions about what constitutes ethical behavior (e.g., Arlow, 1991; Barnett & Karson, 1989). A meta-analysis of 35 studies that included age as a factor concluded that ethicality seemed to increase as people mature (Borkowski & Ugras, 1998). Peterson et al. (2001) found younger business professionals to display a lower ethical standard and to be more influenced by external factors in making ethical judgments. Similarly and more recently, Conroy et al. (2009) found older business professionals to be less likely to judge ethically questionable behavior as acceptable.

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Business Ethics in Japan : Taking a Closer Look at the Role of Age


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